In this edition of BorderLore we do a "close reading" of one of Tucson's most interesting public murals. Heavily coded with symbols, signs, and many small wonders of city and body lore, this out-of-the-ordinary mural "llama mucho la atencion." Located in the 1-sq.mile municipality of South Tucson, the mural is a creation of Las Artes -the well regarded alternative youth organization run by Pima County (read this and this about the program).
In a recent scorching afternoon, BorderLore dispatchers spent time with Las Artes' maestros and lead muralists Alex Garza (a muralist veteran hailing from Chicago originally) and Lupe Ruiz (home-grown talent of the Sonoran desert). Below, they lead us meticulously, one coded sign after another, across the surface of the tile-mural and share with us their insights about the meaning of public art, rascuachismo, and social memory (among other things).
The mural's main representational element are Tatooes. The design appears over two wings in flight, or perhaps, from another angle, the pages of a book opening. At opposite ends, the tatooed bodies of a man and a woman, their arms stretched and palms turned upward, as if with the intention to "hold up" the meaning of being here, in this community, now.
In the center, stylized as a tatuaje, an offering of red roses over a heart crown the words "Mi Barrio." The "Mi Barrio" banner rests above the Tohono O'odham symbol of I'itoi (Man in the Maze). In another part of the mural, the symbol of the Yoeme (Yaqui) cross is also represented.
Remarkably monochromatic, except for the banner of rose buds that runs horizontally across the wall, the mural has been designed with three particular elements in mind: old-style cursive and block lettering, traditional or original designs, and blue ink. The idea of "old-style" is important to Garza and Ruiz in another, perhaps deeper, sense:
"Tatooes are humble kinds of art forms and in this community, they go back generations...this wall is close to the Senior Center and when many of the elderly walk by, they point out signs that they recognize. For us, the mural is in part a way of honoring them, the older folks, but more importantly, it also tries to say something about how a culture adorns itself, how it memorializes itself through symbols, how even a little thing can mean something."
BorderLore: Did you confront any opposition to the Tattoo design from residents of city officials?
It can be a sensitive issue as far as gang signs or for some people even the fact that there are some associations with prison art, but the thing is we tried to explain to everyone that underneath the image they see are parts of a culture. Part of the idea of doing murals is to change perceptions by representing the aesthetics that are at the heart of a culture; not everyone is going to like it, but they won't be able to say it ain't real. Las Artes is pretty much known as "neutral territory." And we also go to such lengths to involve the youth in the design in a way that we really try to honor what matters to them -that the process itself is part of how we deal with any potential backlash."
Lupe Ruiz: What you see is the result of a conversation with and among youth --8 intense weeks of talking up every aspect of it. There are a lot of hands in this; some did the research on old sailor-type designs, some drew the designs, some cut tiles...I mean there's a place for everyone; the angry student or the contemplative student, it doesn't matter, they each can throw in their stuff. We argued too....for 3 weeks we argued about some designs.
Alex and Lupe call my attention to two particular design elements they would not want me to miss:
1) the presence of what we agree are fundamental and repeated iconic elements in pretty much the large bulk of Chicano or Mexicano popular art.
2) the way that female names are inscribed throughout ---always in a double-helix of meaning (refering to an actual woman or memory of a woman as well as to the concept/idea that such a name invokes communally).
BorderLore: A ver, show me.....
Lupe Ruiz: Well, about the icons, here is the Virgen de Guadalupe.
and here is an Aztec Warrior:
and here is the Eagle of the Farm Worker's Union with the words that every Chicana knows by heart:
BorderLore: Very well, how about the names....
Alex Garza: There are a few, like I said, these codes are read differently depending on your relationship to the mural. If you are driving by, then it's the overall composition and color that speaks to you; you'll just say: ah, a series of tattoos, that's all. But for the people in this community who walk by it, there's the next level of reading; and some of them, go even deeper. They stop by and get the meanings at a whole different level. That's what the names throughout are intended to do, to draw in the viewer to the deeper level. Look here, next to the Calavera, right below the cross, we have what? Pues....Esperanza (hope).
BorderLore: Hey, that's cool; in my business we call this metacommunication...the name appears as a tattoo in the tattoo design....
Alex Garza: Pues, que crees....? We know how to work it! Look here, another example: the hand of the woman is extended and on the underside the name Alma (soul). Do you know that many women tattoo their daughter's names in their bodies? It's not just men who do it.
And here is the sword and the military signs and the name is Dolores (Pain). The armed forces....it's a subject of debate in the community but the fact is that many Mexican-Americans are very proud of their country. We have to acknowledge that that too is part of our collective experience.
So, altogether you can begin to see that the story behind the names is that the community inscribes a lot of pain and grief and hope in its story...and that pain and hope is represented as female....that is something that can be easily glossed over and it has a lot of meaning for life in the Barrio, which is not an easy life by the way. There are other names, too: see here, Soledad....Madre, even Lady Luck....
BorderLore: Thanks so much, Alex and Lupe....this is a mural unlike any other I've ever seen. It really works on so many levels...hey, what about this name here, below...."La Tusa"?
Alex and Lupe: [Laughter]....that just means Tucson....
Alex Garza: It's Caló, Chicano Caló, or slang or dialect....the word Calo comes from Spain, the dialect of the Gitanos or Gipsies....many cities have a name given to it in Chicano Caló. Tucson is La Tusa; El Paso is El Chuco; Sacramento is Sacra; Salinas is Salas; San Jose is San Jo; Los Angeles is Los, and if it is East Los Angeles, it is East Los; and so forth.....
BorderLore: And San Francisco is San Pancho? [Laughter]
Alex Garza: I am not sure that is Chicano Caló, it's more like Hispanic Humor......[Laughter]....
The Piquant Taste of Chicano Orality:
Jose Antonio Burciaga
Of all his books (and many more loose poems and short prose) there's none like the exquisite ride through Chicano consciousness that his bilingual text Undocumented Love/Amor Indocumentado (1992, published by Chusma House Publications in San Jose, California).
Just a quick sample reveals the range --poetic, ironic, political, lyrical, and musical of this master of the palabra:
From the poem After Aztlan:
there will be Alabam
there will be the can-can,
there will be the cha cha cha...
there will be no Mictlan,
just the question
at the last judgement
about how you want
your frijoles: con
red chile, green chile,
tortillas de harina, maiz, o pan?
One element that distinguishes Burciaga's poetry is its inventive Spanglish syncopation--a rhythm not quite delivered as expected, but all the same pleasant and funky. The key that seems to unlock the ritmo is an organically erudite knowledge of the folk speech of the barrios. The poet becomes a self-reflexive linguist, a tongue-in-cheek "native anthropologist" who auto-represents what is equal parts ordinary and extraordinary in Chicana everyday life.
Like in the poem Lo Del Corazon, where he instructs us:
without the bow in the Ko,
pronounced with a soft "d" and "son" instead of "zone..." also pronounced Corathon in Hithpania....
But in Aztlan,
you can say cora
which is short for corazon
or you can say corazonsote
which is very big hearted
or a sweet and short corazonsito....
Jose Antonio Burciaga was born in El Paso, Texas in 1940. He was one of the founders of the comedy group Culture Clash. Also a painter and graphic illustrator, his mural at Stanford's Casa Zapata "Last Supper of Chicano Heroes," where he was Resident Fellow with his wife Cecilia Burciaga, is considered today one of the most important works of the Chicano movement. His book Undocumented Love won the American Book Award by the Before Columbus Foundation in 1992. He also published Spilling the Beans: Loteria Chicana, Drink Cultura, and Weedee Peepo. He passed away at the age of 56 after a 22-month battle with cancer.
A journalist and frequent contributor to mainstream newspapers, seven months before his death he published a commentary in the Los Angeles Times. In it, he said:
"Whoa! Did I hear somebody take my name in vain again? Pat Buchanan, in front of Dios y todos, said, "José, we ain't gonna let you in again!" Buchanan has consistently, and with disrespect, used the name José as a catchword for all Mexicans. Well! Señor Booshanan, as my father-in-law calls you, I want to clarify a few things. Numero uno, as we say en español: Aquí estamos y no nos vamos (we're here and we ain't leaving). "
One of Burciaga's best known poems is Stammerred Dreams (having had the unique experience of listening to him perform it is one of life's most treasured moments). The poem is written exactly as it would be read by someone stammering. The irony, of course, is in the reference it evokes to "problems of communication" -- a problem that Chicanas/os and immigrants know too well.
The poem swirls around one's heart like a litany of dreams, slowly building up to a disarming realization: the stammerer is an immigrant who longs for home:
In Undocumented Love, Burciaga included explanatory notes for each poem. He breaks his usual modesty and tells us about Stammered Dreams that it was a poem many respected authors --Arturo Islas, Dianne Middlebrook, and Lorna Dee Cervantes, amon others-- really liked. One poet in Mexico said it was the most moving poem he had ever heard. A critic in Mexico described it as "the voice of the Chicano unable to express himself." Tony adds, "I agree, but my primary objective was in describing the frustrating exasperation of life in this day and age." In this comment, Tony --the militant Chicano activist--opts to represent his art as a more universal, humanistic expression than simply an ethnic manifesto.
Burciaga's language games frequently involved references (made-up faux versions mostly) of the ancestral tongue of Chicanos: Nahuatl. In Burciaga's take, however, irreverence (not nostalgia) commanded the Chicano imaginary. In the poem/parody Poema en Tres Idiomas y Calo he complicates the Chicana/o's lingual abilities X 4:
Españotli titlán Englishic,
titlán náhuatl, titlán Calo.
Mi mente spirals al mixtli,
I feel cuatro lenguas in mi boca.
It's hard to pick the right sampling here to convey the full range of this poetic provocador, but his poems in Chicano Calo represent an absolutely underappreaciated treasure that not many have had the resolve to tackle (as a matter of fact a quick search of dissertations completed in the last 12 years revealed none devoted to the work of Burciaga). In this arena, his Credo de Aztlan is among the best of the genre:
Creo en Chuy,
bato de aquella,
y buti alivianado.
Creador de Africa, Asia y Aztlan
y todo lo firme y chafas.
Creo en el jefito Chuy,
hijo del jefito,
jefito del hijo,
hijo de su,
mas pronto que quick,
antes del before,
luz del light,
jefito del father,
no hecho a mano,
nor inin Taiwan...
(Burciaga offered no translation of any of the Calo terms in his poems)
And again, in his Letania en Calo, we hear:
Ruega por nosotros...
Ruega por nosotros...
Bato que se avienta,
Ruega por nosotros...
Cuate de mi barrio,
Ruega por nosotros...
Cholo de San Anto
Ruega por nosotros...
Cholo de Sanjo
Ruega por nosotros...
De las chingaderas,
De la migra,
De los tecatos
De los vendidos
Bato de mi Raza
The first time he read this poem in public, Tony tells us in his confessional notes, he was dressed like a priest. In this sense, we are reminded of the theatrics that were always a part of Chicano/a poetry, making it thus the antecedents of performance art as we know it today. Of the poem he says: "This litany is not only a satire, but, it is also a very real theology of liberation."
Mocking English pronunciation assumes in Burciaga's repertoire a particularly politized dimension, but he never abandons the humor that makes the point more effectively than didacticism. In this sense, his linguistic strategies align with what scholar Frances Aparicio has termed the "tropicalization" phenomenon of Latino/a fiction and poetry. In a sense, rather than designed to humiliate the Opressor for resistance's sake, the goal is to transform and re-write "the Anglo signifiers from the Latino cultural vantage point." Here's Tony doing his thing in the poem In Commemoration of the USA Bicentennial:
Two-hundred years ago,
Kalaforña era California,
Texas era Tejas,
New Mexico era Mexico..
Two hundred years ago,
the Southwest era El Norte.
Two-hundred years ago,
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora, Reina de Los Angeles,
Frisco era San Francisco,
Sanhosay era San Jose,
El Pasowe era El Paso del Norte,
Santone era San Antonio...
Valencha Street era La Calle Valencia,
two hundred years ago,
se hablaba español por aca.
Ocassionally, Burciaga would write about his own subject position as a wrriter/activist. In one poem entitled The Truth he riffs:
The truth is that I tire,
I tire of yelling,
I tire of writing,
I tire of painting,
but know nothing except
to yell, write, and paint.
And we....Tony (desde la luz from which you watch us struggle to keep hope aflame) are grateful you never stopped: yelling, writing, painting. Gracias!!